Four Unexpected Challenges of Sobriety

A couple months ago I wrote about four amazing, unexpected benefits of sobriety. So now it’s time for the downers. To be clear, I thought everything about sobriety would be a downer, and by “downer” I mean “death sentence.” Aside from ditching the ‘please-just-kill-me-now' hangovers and the shame of the ‘oh-god-what-did-I-say' texts I was sure the rest of it would be a serious B-version of life. It’s mind-blowing how myopic this perspective was given the reality of my life then, but as Stephen King said, “I wasn’t within shouting distance of my right mind” when it was time to call it quits.

Now, a year + into sobriety, I can say the things I thought would be tough (read: impossible)—namely, not drinking, having fun, making connections with men, coping with stress—were, in fact, tough. That stuff was painfully difficult for a while. But there have been a few surprising challenges along the way that I didn't predict. Here they are:

Time slows down. Way down.

One of the things I loved most about drinking was that it made time slippery. A long layover? Perfect.  Waiting for your table at the restaurant? Bar time. Your second shift with the kids after work? Wine smooths it out. When I was drinking my days took on a dizzying blur, and although I made it through many, many days and nights without drinking, the promise of a drink in the future kept time reeling forward.

But sober time, sweet baby Jesus does it move slowly. Early on, I heard a woman say in a meeting, “If you want your life to slow down, get sober,” and my head almost snapped off my neck I nodded so hard in recognition. It’s tough enough to be present for life in any state, but it’s crazy tough when you’re uncomfortable and early sobriety is a lot of uncomfortable. In one of my favorite recovery tapes (yes, there are tapes) the speaker talks about how a new guy walked up to him after a meeting with a wide-eyed, bewildered look. The guy asked if he was alright and he responded, “Yeah, I mean…I’m okay really… I just never knew how LONG a day was.”

  Life, taking forever. Photo credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half.

  Life, taking forever. Photo credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half.

When you’re counting days it feels as though you’ll never not be counting days. Like you’ll never again feel the casual slippage of time. You’ll never again utter the common phrase: Where does the time go? You now know where it goes: it goes to all the people who can’t drink. Time sucks into the sobriety vortex and stops cold.

Of course, this changed. If it didn’t I’d have slung myself off a bridge many months ago. I don’t obsessively project forward anymore and think: on X date I’ll be Y days sober, as if it will somehow get me there faster. I don’t enter fake sobriety dates on my tracker to see what it’ll look like to have 5, 6, 10 months of sobriety. I don’t know my day count unless I look. I now often wish time would slow down and I don’t usually count the hours until bedtime, but sometimes I do, because I love bedtime. Time’s pace now tracks like it used to, except I remember everything, and that’s incredible.

Loneliness

I've never known loneliness like the loneliness of early sobriety. There was a period of time when all my old friendships had sloughed off, or at least were being held in abeyance until I could get my bearings, and I hadn’t yet made real connections to new people. It seemed as though the world was divided into three groups: people who could drink, people who were sober and happy about it, and me.

Me, sometime in 2013, wondering where all my people were.

Me, sometime in 2013, wondering where all my people were.

At about two months sober I was dating a guy and we’d just spent Thanksgiving weekend together. On Sunday morning I grew increasingly agitated and anxious as he was preparing to leave my house and head home. I became clawing and needy and practically begged him to stay—something I’d never done before—and it was crushing to feel and to watch. When he asked what was happening, I tried to explain, but couldn’t. The truth was I was lonely and and deeply embarrassed about it. I realized I didn’t have anyone I wanted to call or hang out with, or maybe more importantly, that felt connected to my insides. It was both the immediate situation—he was leaving that afternoon to go out with friends while I didn’t have a thing—and the broader truth of my life at that moment: I was an almost-divorced, barely-sober late 30-something mom living in the suburbs and my friends, for all intents and purposes, were gone. It was as if someone had dragged the most feral, pink-skinned part of me out into the living room for us both to see.

His reaction (wise man) was to leave. Mine was...what choice did I have? My self-escape methods, particularly my favorite one, were all played out.

I had to stay.

I hated him for leaving that day, but I can now see it as one of the first times I really had to be with myself. For at least an hour after he’d gone, I laid on my scratchy living room rug staring at the ceiling. The sun went down around 4:30 and when it got completely dark in my house I got up and took a bath.

Even though I’d met a lot of people through recovery meetings, had circles of co-workers, mommy acquaintances, groups of friends from various phases of life and a beautiful daughter, it took a long time before I felt connected again in sobriety. But it did happen—and when it did, it really did. With time, by reaching out, by telling the truth, listening and allowing life to unfold, I made both new friendships and re-connected with the old ones that still fit. My relationships now are more rich, honest, and joyful than they’ve ever been. But oh, that loneliness.

My friend Holly recently wrote a brilliant post on the topic: 11 Ways to Make Friends in Sobriety.

There are no shortcuts.

The note I had stuck on the wall next to my bathroom mirror.

The note I had stuck on the wall next to my bathroom mirror.

Drinking was a shortcut to everything. It was a quick, reliable path to a more relaxed state, bravado, ease, connection, intimacy, entertainment, less pain, whatever. When I wanted to be something other than what I was, drinking got me there, and quick. It worked. And even though by the end it had stopped working on almost all accounts, the wiring was still there once I removed the booze: I wanted what I wanted, now.

When I got sober it was quite the rude awakening to learn that there were no shortcuts to being…more sober. I couldn’t have six months when I only had six days. I couldn’t skip past the painful parts to get to the good stuff. I couldn’t kill it at my job, show up as supermom, throw dinner parties, fix all my financial problems and have an amazing boyfriend at once just because I wasn’t blacking out every night. I mean, I couldn’t even remember how to make small talk without a wine glass in my hand. For a time, I just had to be physically sober. I had to simply not drink. I had to be at point A when I was at point A.

In other words, time takes time.

Most people don’t get it.

The fact is most people drink, but few can identify with alcohol addiction. While I believe there is a far wider grey area than society recognizes, the current statistic is that 86% of American's drink alcohol, 29% drink excessively but only 7% can be classified as addicted.

Stated another way, 1 in every 10 people shares my experience.

While that may not sound too narrow, when you consider how pervasive drinking is in our culture and the stigma associated with addiction, the perception of other-ness for a newly sober person is magnified 100x.

But screw the statistics. When I got sober I wanted so badly for other people to get it. I wanted my struggle to be felt, my frustration and sadness validated, my grief recognized. But the reality was, 99% of the people in my life were people I drank with—and many, heavily, for a lot of years—and they did not share my experience. Friends, family, co-workers, siblings, boyfriends, husbands, parents—they were all right there beside me through two decades, but alcohol didn’t take them down like it took me down.

I realized quickly I could get the kind of identification I needed at recovery meetings, but I wanted it from the rest of the people in my life, too. And while many people in my life really wanted to get it and be there for me, it’s like motherhood or marriage or divorce or depression: you can’t truly know until you live it.

My ex-husband said to me recently, “You’re probably someone who will be able to have a glass of wine or two at dinner someday, right? Don’t you think?" This is someone who I shared a whole life with for years, who slept next to me while I was passed out hundreds of times, saw me take dozens of spills while drunk, and who was on the receiving end of so many lies and disappointments.

Nope. No. The answer is no, I won't.

I don’t point this out to say he’s dim for not getting it. I point it out because even those closest to me don't understand and perhaps never will. Some will judge harshly. Others will misunderstand. Plenty don't care a lick. And that’s okay; all of it is really okay. I now know I don’t need everyone to get it for my experience to be valid. Like all other areas of life, the degree to which I look outside for approval is the degree to which I will suffer.

It's been imperative for me to find people who do get it, and I have. I lean on those people hard, and they lean on me. A huge shift in this area occurred when I realized I could change the perception of what it means to be "addicted" and "sober" by making it what I wanted it to be, versus what I thought it had to be. That maybe I couldn't make people understand, but I could let them see, without hiding. 


I would love to know what your surprising challenges have been. Leave a comment and let me know. xo - Laura